Wine grapes

Chardonnay grapes grow at Hyland Estates in Dundee.

The wine industry is headed toward more digitalization, technology use and new markets.

At the virtual Oregon Wine Symposium this week, several speakers talked about how the wine industry’s future may look different than its past, with consumer preferences changing, new technologies available and more shoppers eager to buy online.

“Things have changed forever, and COVID was the great accelerator,” said Steve Brown, a business consultant and technologist who calls himself a “futurist.”

Brown was the keynote speaker during Tuesday’s main virtual session.

What consumers want

Brown said consumers — especially young consumers — are making several major shifts in their purchasing behaviors compared to previous generations.

More shoppers, Brown said, are becoming “conscious consumers,” eager to know their wine was produced in a sustainable way and that workers were treated well.

Shoppers today also crave less mystery and more transparency.

Even in the traditionally sophisticated wine sector, Brown said consumer polls and purchasing data show people, especially younger drinkers, want more inclusivity and access as opposed to wine’s traditionally exclusive nature.

Brown said wineries should think about changing their “snobby” image, which he dubbed “de-snobification.”

Consumers, he said, are now also looking for more personalization, online buying options, experience-focused purchases, innovations and more convenience.

Futuristic technology

The other major change in the wine sector, Brown said, is that it’s headed in a more technological direction, in the supermarket, winery and vineyard.

On the marketing side, Brown cited digital services like Wine4.Me, an interactive tool which recommends wines to buyers based on their answers to questions like how much spice, sweetness, body and oak flavor they like in their wine.

An even more entry-level digital tool for rookie wine drinkers is called Tastry, which asks shoppers simple questions such as, “How do you feel about the smell of flowers?” Based on the consumer’s answers, the tool recommends wines that could suit the person’s palate, providing a digital sommelier-like experience.

Brown said wineries should think about how they can label their bottles, potentially using labels that signal a particular wine’s characteristics.

In the winery, some vineyards are turning to computational blending, a type of artificial intelligence system that helps winemakers create blends that meet specific needs or appeal to particular demographics.

Some conference attendees seemed enthusiastic in their comments: “This is amazing!”

Others appeared skeptical.

“Would small, hands-on wineries really use this kind of computation blending?” wrote Lindsay Neilson, a wine scholar, in the virtual chat.

In the vineyard, Brown said, there’s room for technological innovation, too.

Precision agriculture is making its way into wine-grape growing. In higher-end vineyards, fruit-picking robots are beginning to emerge. Some vineyards are using ultraviolet light treatments and other technologies to combat powdery mildew, a fungal disease. Some growers are even using Burro “cobots,” a type of robot that collaborates with humans, to carry heavy buckets.

“The world is changing,” said Brown, the consultant. “You need to innovate to remain competitive.”

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